How to Prepare for the SAT & ACT

The learning goes on for students at The Academy at Penguin Hall with the help of technologies like Zoom, and similarly the college process continues for the Class of 2021. And what do we usually talk about every spring? Standardized tests! So, let’s review how you can prepare for the SAT and ACT in the coming weeks and months.

The first thing to know is that the May and June SATs have been cancelled. We haven’t received official word yet, but I anticipate the ACT following suit and canceling its June administration as well. This undoubtedly throws a wrench into the test-taking plans of many juniors, but there is always a silver lining. In this case, you have more time to prepare! While your other extracurriculars are on hiatus for a bit, my hope is that you can use this time constructively to get accustomed to what the SAT and ACT will be looking for.

Familiarize Yourself with the Test

Now that you’re thinking about the logistics of replicating the test setting, let’s talk about the content of the tests. The SAT and the ACT have become more similar over the years as they compete for market shares, but there are still some differences in the big-picture format. This is a decent chart illustrating some key differences in the content and approach of each test. In short, the ACT is a bit of a faster-moving test, but the SAT’s questions are trickier in general. Do your homework, though, before you decide on which test to take.

Also make sure that you’re looking at real practice problems. In general, these questions are not like those you see in class. They try to confuse you, so you want to know what to look for. To prepare for the SAT in particular, I recommend Khan Academy for quality SAT practice problems. We’ve also had students report great experiences with the SAT Prep Black Book by Mike Barrett and Patrick Barrett. These resources will be fairly applicable to the ACT as well, but has a good cache of practice problems if you want something ACT-specific. 

You’ve got some time, so if you do 15 minutes a day of practice work from these sources, you will be in very good shape by the time the tests are offered again this summer.

Practice, Practice, and More Practice

The most important thing you can do right now is practice! At APH, we don’t take many standardized tests. You aren’t used to bubbling in scantron sheets like students at other schools might be. To that end, you have to practice the act of taking the test. Either get a book or print an answer sheet that will allow you to bubble in answers like on a scantron. Sharpen a real-life pencil! Get used to what it feels like to take a test like this.

To that end, also be sure to do some practice early in the morning. You won’t be taking the SAT or ACT after school or after a refreshing nap; you’ll be taking them at 8 a.m. Do some of your practice tests and sections at 8 a.m. to prepare for the SAT or ACT, and see how it feels to do these types of problems at that time of day.

One thing to pay extra close attention to are the Writing and Grammar sections on each test. Based on my experience as an SAT tutor, these sections cover rules that many American students either don’t learn or forget by the time they get to these standardized tests (although at APH, our 9th and 10th grade English classes do address these protocols), so it’s probably the part of the SAT or ACT that will require the most content acquisition from you. Here’s a good breakdown of many of the rules. 

If you know these cold, the grammatical questions will be a breeze for you but it takes — you guessed it, practice!

Be Mentally Ready

In addition to mastering strategies and content, one thing that practicing can do is alleviate your anxiety. If you aren’t looking forward to sitting silently for over three hours while you take one of these tests, you’re not alone. Yet, if you go into the exam in a positive headspace, you’re more likely to do your best on it. Generally, the more prepared you feel for something, the less anxiety you’ll have about it, so make sure that you prepare for the SAT or ACT enough to help you feel confident. 

However, there is also a lot you can do leading up to the test to set yourself up for success. I strongly recommend that you do not spend any time on test prep the entire day before the exam. There’s nothing you can cram last-minute; instead, do something fun and relaxing so that you’re feeling good. 

Make sure to go to bed by at least 10 p.m. the night before your test, because you want to be well-rested the next morning. Wake up at least two hours before the test is going to start and eat a full breakfast so that your brain has the time and fuel to be operating at full speed when you get to your testing site. Bring snacks to keep your energy up during the test breaks. All of this will help ensure that you are in the best mental position to maximize your performance on your standardized test.

Doing well on the SAT and ACT can be practiced and learned. Remember, too, that with practice and preparation, test scores can improve by hundreds of points from your first practice test to your final official sitting. Above all, just know that with practice and a positive mindset, you can do it!